Browns Ferry nuclear plant

Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant

A law firm representing three former members of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Employee Concerns Program filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint Friday with the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Washington, D.C.,-based Clifford & Garde LLP filed the complaint on behalf of Melody Babb, Deanna Fults and Mark Richerson. All three allege TVA removed them from their positions as managers in the ECP program and were “forced to work in different, and significantly lower value positions … ,” the complaint says.

Richerson worked for TVA for 15 years and was the senior ECP program manager at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant from August 2010 until July 8. It was then, the complaint states, Richerson was “transferred, against his wishes” to the quality-assurance department at the nuclear plant.

Babb was the senior ECP program manager at TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Plant before also being removed from her job in July. TVA offered her a position as senior program manager in Nuclear Quality Assurance, which the complaint said she “reluctantly accepted.”

Fults was the corporate ECP program manager at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant until her removal in July. She accepted a six-month temporary rotational management position in non-nuclear Facilities Asset Management and was told she would be trained to be a project manager. However, she was asked to shadow a part-time project-control specialist. The complaint states she has applied for 13 full-time positions for which she is well-qualified, but has not received any offers of employment.

The complaint

The 36-page complaint levies a number of allegations at TVA, including that a “chilled work environment” existed within the utility's Nuclear Oversight department. It also alleges TVA remains on regulatory “probation” with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “regarding its inability to establish and maintain a healthy safety culture.”

In May, Fults filed an allegation with the NRC noting “irregularities” in the way TVA management had addressed the chilled work environment at Watts Bar. The complaint goes on to say management also interfered with ECP investigations.

“Cooperating with the NRC was initially an expected part of the ECP regular and frequent duties and responsibilities. However, that expectation changed as frequent contact between the Complainants and the NRC was discouraged with the instruction that contact with the Resident NRC Inspector be coordinated through the Licensing Department,” the complaint states. “NRC contact became the subject of suspicion and hostility and there was increasing paranoia about any contact with the NRC, and an expectation that all contacts would be reported.”

Babb, Fults and Richerson also initiated condition reports, which are the avenue used to identify issues or anomalies with quality, mistakes that require corrective actions or oversight by corporate or site management. Their reports detailed actions taken against them personally as well as deficiencies not being addressed by TVA management, the complaint states.

It goes on to say the reports were “not generally given the attention or respect they deserved” and many were closed without effective action being taken or downgraded allowing no corrective action to be taken at all.

The complaint states Richerson wrote a condition report in October 2018 that identified a chilled work environment within the Nuclear Oversight department. The complaint says two days later, TVA management added notes to the report to downplay the significance of the report and classified it “at the lowest possible level.” A week later, the Corporate Licensing department upgraded the report from an E-level to a C-level, which is the highest possible level.

It goes on to say the corporate quality-assurance manager then closed the report with no action taken at the direction of Greg Boerschig, TVA’s vice president of nuclear oversight.

The complainants learned in May the ECP program was being changed, and they were told their removal was not a reflection of their job performance. ECP employees were told the new ECP positions were designed to be filled by “first-line craft supervisors from the plants and would be selected based on recommendations from Site Vice Presidents,” the complaint says.

“Criteria for selection was to include having demonstrated good relations with both employees and management.”

In the filing, the complainants ask to be reinstated to their previous positions, accompanied with public acknowledgement that their removal was not on the basis of a performance-based reason. They also seek an apology printed in the TVA publication, “Keeping You Current,” and distributed as a press release to media outlets that “received the TVA comments denigrating the Complainants for failure to perform in their positions.”

They also seek compensation “for all the physical, mental and emotional anxiety, depression, shame and embarrassment that TVA caused them in connection with their removal from their positions; for the public and personal shame and embarrassment; and for the loss of enjoyment of personal and family relationships.”

Reason for change

TVA did not provide a request for comment Monday, citing the Veterans Day holiday. However, in a June interview about changes to the ECP program, Timothy Rausch, TVA's chief nuclear officer, said employees affected by the utility's decision to change the ECP were offered employment elsewhere within the company or the opportunity to step away if those chose to do so.

In discussing the old ECP operations, Rausch said it was discovered through employees, internal assessments and past feedback that performance wasn't the same across the board. In some cases, he said, issues weren't efficiently addressed and resolved. He explained TVA set out to create a proactive solution as opposed to a reactive one.

“Our desired environment is to proactively search for early signs of decline so we can address it early,” he said. “To make that shift, we wanted to take a good program and make it an industry best.”

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